Emergency responders tested

At Manchester airport

By JAKE BERRY Staff Writer MANCHESTER – Just after 10 a.m. Saturday, a curtain of flames broke the morning fog at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport.
A string of emergency vehicles quickly ascended on the scene, and, within minutes, dozens of passengers laid on the ground covered in blood red stains, not one of them actually injured.
On one end of the airport campus, travelers milled about happily, yet just a short distance away, the hum of fire engines and radio calls told a different story as the airport held its triennial emergency drill.

The exercise, held every three years, drew hundreds of emergency personnel from 85 police, fire and medical agencies from across the state as they gathered to stage an airplane crash and test the airport’s emergency response procedures.
Airport managers and emergency responders alike will use the drill over the coming weeks to review and refine their response plans in the case of an actual plane crash or emergency incident.

“We’re going to makes some mistakes today, but that’s what this is for,” Kevin Murray, a Bedford firefighter and the drill’s safety officer, said Saturday, speaking over the chorus of sirens that echoed across the scene.
“This is a drill,” Murray said loudly. “I’m comfortable that everybody’s going to walk away with some type of training today.”
The Manchester airport, which has been hosting the response drill for more than 20 years, has never seen a true passenger plane crash, and the last emergency incident – an accident involving an experimental fighter jet – occurred a decade ago, according to Tom Malafronte, assistant director of airport development and marketing.

Nevertheless, the exercise, required by the Federal Aviation Administration, gives airport officials a chance to review and improve their response procedures, Malafronte said Saturday as he conducted a tour of the scene.
Each year, officers conduct a “table top” drill in which they review their response plans in a meeting setting. The exercise allows them to hone their plans, but it’s the full simulation drill that allows them to truly put their responses to the test and to improve their procedures, Malafronte said Saturday as he conducted a tour of the scene.

In past years, airport officers have used the drill to make improvements to radio, communication and other emergency response equipment, he said Saturday as he led a tour of the scene.
“This is a good opportunity for us to make sure what we’re doing is working and to see what we could do better,” he said. “We’re treating it in every way like its a real incident.”

With rain falling, Saturday’s drill began with an emergency dispatch report of a plane crash on the airport’s east end.
The plane, flying for the fictional “Black Hawk” airline, was carrying 65 passengers, three crew members and more than 1,000 gallons of fuel at the time, and it burst into flames when it hit the ground, according to the dispatch reports.
Two converted buses, painted black and equipped with a nose tip, were used to make up the plane, and several pipe devices simulated the explosion.

Emergency crews from surrounding towns arrived quickly on the scene, working to control the fire and establish a command center. And once the other teams – hundreds of personnel from Nashua, Merrimack, Brookline and Hollis, as well as other towns from across the state – arrived on the scene, they rushed to remove the surviving passengers to a medical staging area, where the passengers were evaluated and transported to area hospitals.

The passengers, dressed in fake blood and other decorations, were divided in the staging area by the severity of their injuries. Passengers with critical injuries were placed on a red sheet, located several hundred feet from the wreckage. Those with moderate injuries were placed on a yellow sheet, and those with only minor injuries, “the walking wounded,” waited on a green sheet.
The most severe patients were all transported by 10:50 a.m. to Eliot Hospital and Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, among other local hospitals.

“That’s the challenge, making sure you send the right injuries to the right places,” Malafronte said.
But, it was some of the lesser injuries that challenged the responders the most, they said.
“What we’re finding out is (the walking wounded) are on the scene for such a long time that, because they’re the last ones to go to the hospital, they get categorized to a higher level,” said Murray, the safety officer. “They may go from minimum injuries and now they go back into the yellow areas.”
By 11:21 a.m., about 80 minutes after the reported crash, all the survivors had been transported or released and the chief responders declared the scene cleared.

“We’re going to terminate this drill at this time,” a dispatcher said over the radio.
But for the airport staff and local emergency responders much of the work was just beginning. Airport officers will analyze every aspect of the drill over the coming weeks as part of their annual review with the FAA, and local departments will examine their efforts, as well. Just in case.
“This is important for us,” said Nashua Deputy Fire Chief Michael O’Brien Sr., who sent an engine and a ladder truck to the drill. “Pre-planning is a form of incident preparedness, whether it’s looking at the buildings and facilities here in our city or going somewhere else like Manchester. … This could happen any day, anywhere. We have to be prepared.”

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or jberry@nashuatelegraph.com.

© 2009, Telegraph Publishing Company, Nashua, New Hampshire

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